Vinay Singh (name changed) could never muster the courage to talk to “doctor uncle” about his bedroom woes. The 28-year-old Noida-based entrepreneur suffered from premature ejaculation for months till he stumbled upon a mobile app which offers ‘private and anonymous consultations’ with ‘qualified’ doctors.
Singh immediately downloaded the app, registered with just his initials as user id and shared his concern in the ‘free query’ section. Within 24 hours, ten sexologists responded with advice. He booked a telephonic consultation with the one whose suggestions he found most practical. “Thanks to him, I managed to overcome the problem,” he says.
Singh is among a growing number of Indians who are turning to mobile-and-web consultations to seek help for conditions they are too embarrassed to discuss face to face with doctors. Log on to the ‘open questions’ section of Lybrate, a mobile and e-health service launched this January, and you see countless queries about genital rashes, excessive sweating and sexually transmitted infections.
Downloaded by 1.5 million users, Lybrate receives nearly 7,000 queries daily related to sexual health, followed by 5,000 questions on contraception, 4,000 on dermatological issues and 1,000 on psychological problems. “Close to 700 users complain about bad breath daily,” says Saurabh Arora, an IIT Delhi alumnus who co-founded the e-health company.
On icliniccare.com, half of the 700 consultations every month are related to ‘private’ issues, says founder Sanjoy Mukerji. Evaidya.com sees similar traffic — 50% of the 500 phone consultations facilitated are related to sexual and reproductive health issues and 10% to mental health.
“Indian society has become liberal but sex and mental health are still taboo topics. Even people who have access to a psychiatrist or sexologist worry that someone will see them going to the clinic,” says Dr PBN Choudhary who heads Evaidya.
Most e-health companies have a panel of doctors — Lybrate claims to have 90,000 specialists on board — who respond to the basic queries for free — or Rs 99 depending on experience of the doctor — often within two hours.
Patients can consult specialists via text chat, phone or video for a fee ranging from Rs 200 to Rs 5,000 and receive scanned prescriptions by email.
The biggest draw is that patients can ‘see’ a doctor without being ‘seen’. “We take utmost care to maintain the anonymity of patients. We do ask for a mobile number and an email id for verification but the user can choose to display name. Age and gender are also optional fields,” says Arora.
Dr Garima Kaur, a gynaecologist attached to Lybrate, says that patients often give fake names or just their first names. The Delhi-based doctor says she has been approached by women who have been treated by multiple doctors for recurrent urinary tract infection but are still awkward about asking basic questions on personal hygiene: for example, what soap they should wash themselves with.
Sex, drugs and depression:
Among women, unwanted pregnancy leads the list of e-inquiries. Kaur says unmarried girls who are sexually active — as well as some married women involved in extra-marital relationships — consult her on birth control options and termination of pregnancy. “These women are desperate and capable of going in for unsafe methods if they are not guided immediately,” she says.
Fear of contracting sexually transmitted diseases is another common concern. Dr Meha Malhotra, a HIV/AIDS specialist attached to Icliniq.com, responds to multiple queries daily from individuals — mostly men — who are worried about HIV after unprotected sex. The Ahmedabad-based doctor spends almost 10 of the 20 minutes allotted to phone consultation advising patients against risky sex. After a thorough inquisition, she prescribes an Elisa or blood PCR test for HIV if required.
Sometimes timely intervention has helped e-docs avert major trouble. “Last month, a woman told me that her 39-year-old bachelor son had stopped going to office and also scratched his face out of family photographs. I immediately alerted her — this is a sign of suicidal thoughts,” says Dr Priyanka Srivastava, a psychologist with Lybrate. “It would have been ideal to counsel this man in person but he was not ready. So I spent an hour on phone with the mother suggesting ways in which she could help her son find a purpose in life.”